On Thursday President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Japanese head of government Junichiro Koizumi discussed on the phone the forthcoming visit by the Japanese Premier to North Korea. Vladimir Putin welcomed Junichiro Koizumi's determination to pay a visit to Pyongyang this mid-September. During the conversation "the emphasis was laid on Russia's interest in the settlement of relations between Japan and North Korea," the Kremlin press service reported.
Russian diplomats officially deny the fact that Russia is mediating in contacts between North Korea and other nations. At the same time, by all appearances, Russia's role in the process to integrate North Korea into the international community is quite significant.
On August 30th, both Tokyo and Pyongyang announced that the Japanese Premier would visit North Korea on September 17th, which would be the first suchlike event in the history of the countries' bilateral relations. This announcement is more than sensational, especially if one takes into account that the bordering nations are still formally in the state of war. Moreover, for decades they could not even make a step towards negotiations on establishing diplomatic relations using preliminary consultations to forward unreal conditions for the settlement, mutual accusations and reproaches.
For Japan, this effort is like a revolution in the country's foreign policies. It's hard to recall the last time this state maintained such an energetic style of policies, which moreover contradicts those of its main ally - the United States. Washington resorts to other methods when dealing with "the axis of evil," which also includes the North Korea.
On the other hand, this step will be an extraordinary event, virtually the first summit with an influential Western leader, for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il who so far met only leaders of friendly countries, Russia and China, and once the South Korean President.
It's noteworthy that the increasing pace of contacts between Japan and North Korea coincided with energetic efforts of Russian diplomats to bring the situation around the Korean peninsula back to normal.
This August, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited North Korea as part of his Asian tour. A high-ranking Russian diplomat disclosed to RIA Novosti that Ivanov's talks with his North Korean counterpart Paek Nam-sun created a sound basis for his subsequent meetings with his Japanese and US counterpart at the ASEAN summit in Brunei.
Later on, Vladimir Putin met Kim Jong-il in Vladivostok (Far Eastern Russia) where the two officials also touched upon relations between Japan and North Korea. In this regard, it's worth mentioning that when Putin and Koizumi met this June at the G-8 summit in Kananaskis, the Japanese leader asked his Russian counterpart for assistance in a bid to clear up the fate of Japanese citizens who, as the Japanese side believes, were kidnapped by North Korean secret agencies in the 1970s and 1980s. This issue is the main stumbling block on the road to settle relations between the two nations.
Further on, contacts between the two countries were continued within the framework of the Red Cross and consultations between foreign ministers, which are most likely to have resulted in the final decision that the Japanese Premier would pay an unprecedented visit to North Korea.
"We believe that Japan maintains a more flexible, compared with that of the United States, approach to its relation with North Korea and is more interested in finding ways to bring bilateral relations back to normal. If such an approach prevails, then Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang may give results in spite of all problems that are still remaining," the high-ranking Russian diplomat emphasized.
The aforesaid "results" are most likely to refer not only to the settlement of relations between the two countries, which can substantially ease tensions on the peninsula, i.e. in the immediate vicinity from Russian borders. Moscow's energetic participation in this process is highly likely to create encouraging conditions for Russia's involvement in an international effort to modernize the North Korean economy. It's hardly a coincidence that the agenda of the conversation between Putin and Koizumi also included the issue of restoring the trans-Korean railroad and its subsequent joining with Russia's trans-Siberian mainline.